Gay impresario Martin Biallas brings a bit of the High Renaissance to Dallas


The reproductions of the Sistine Chapel frescos are still overhead, but not as far away as in the original Vatican locale. (Photo courtesy Cameron Cobb)

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the-art-issue-logo-2016Stories of its magnificence are legendary. The time and logistics in making it come to life are impossibly harrowing. Its recent restoration only added to the acclaim. Its symbols have become etched in the Zeitgeists of almost every culture in the world.

Yet most people have never seen (nor will they ever see) the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel — a massive fresco painted from 1508 to 1512 by Michelangelo, overhead standing on a scaffolding some 40-plus feet above the marble floor — in person.

But Martin Biallas thinks he has come up with the next best thing. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel: The Exhibition presents 34 full-sized photographic reproductions of the frescos, presented on 16 panels arranged overhead to recreate, as much as possible, the experience of seeing the original.

And we have Capt. Kirk to thank for it. Biallas started his career based in New York City doing talent management, with the likes of Tina Turner, Johnny Cash and Eartha Kitt as clients. It was a thrilling time, he recalls.

“I was in my 20s and partying at Studio 54 with everyone from Freddy Mercury to Elton,” he says. “It was a very active gay life then — the clubs were open 24/7. My driver would be completely worn out as I would leave [the clubs] at 8 or 9 in the morning and still be at the office by 10. I could do that back then, but it caught up with me — I was 30 and looked 80. That’s when I moved to L.A. — at least the clubs closed at 2 there!”

Life in Hollywood opened news doors, including a job from Paramount Pictures to recreate the set of the Starship Enterprise for the 30th anniversary of Star Trek. Biallas embraced the task, reproducing the bridge, the transporter room, everything — 100,000 square feet of TV history. (The exhibit still tours today.) That’s what got him thinking about doing the same with more high-brow aspiration. “I just felt like I could excite the same amount of people with more historical or artistic themes,” he says.

Biallas’ company first built replicas of the entire King Tut archaeological site, “just the way Carter found it,” he says. It was such a smash, he started looking for other experiences to recreate. Then about three years ago, he found himself in Rome with some friends. He suggested they visit the Vatican.

“The Sistine Chapel itself has 6 million visitors a year, with a lot of screaming and yelling, 100 guards to prevent you from taking photos and you’re sharing about 10,000 square feet with about 20,000 other people,” Biallas recalls. “All the main frescos are 45 to 60 feet away. It was such a miserable experience. That’s when I had the idea of recreating them — visitors can take photos, be there are long as they want and learn about the art.”

The process was exhausting. He contacted the arts curator from the Vatican several times … and is still waiting to hear back. Most commercial uses of photographs were of too low resolution to create the experience as he wanted it to be. “We are reproducing in the original sizes — 33 frescos at an average of 10 by 20 feet, plus The Last Judgment, which is three or four times as big,” he says.

Biallas eventually tracked down renowned art photographer Eric Lessing, who was the only source outside of the Vatican with resolution high enough to bring the frescos to life. The tour started late last year in Montreal; Dallas is the U.S. premiere of the exhibit, which continues until January before moving to New York. Two other versions are also traveling the world, and Biallas hopes he can continue to bring great art of the High Renaissance to audiences who can’t make it to the hallowed cathedrals of Europe. And if there’s one thing Biallas’ past has shown, it’s that he know how to boldly go where no one has gone before.

The Women’s Building at Fair Park,
3800 Parry Ave.
Through Jan. 8. $10–$16.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 02, 2016.